Slinking and stalking around the stage like a spider in her spiky black headdress and ebony Victoriana dress – black and pointy and not quite of this world – Polly Jean seems a very apt artist to be watching on a Hallowe'en night.
Her band – including long time collaborator John Parish – flank her as they sombrely march onto the stage and launch into tracks from PJ’s latest protest tome, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. As she steps forward from their ranks to her rightful place at the front of the stage, the audience is left in no doubt of her majesty: the only artist ever to have won the Mercury twice, using her ever-rising power to spread her message.
It’s a hit-light and new-material heavy set, but it feels like we’re witnessing something important and vital. The lyrics from ‘Hope Six…’ that can sometimes sound clunky and jarring on record –“But do you see that woman, sitting in the wheelchair? With her Redskins cap on backwards” and “There's the bus depot to the right (there's the bus depot to the right)” are personal gripes – are lifted up in performance; more public service announcement than song.
To similar effect, the choreography, carefully planned and expertly executed, often feels more like a military parade or high drama than a gig, and it’s all the more mesmerising for it. The band PJ Harvey surrounds herself with are like obedient soldiers, or even cult followers, chanting and beating in time to her – the centre of their world. The incantation of “A circle is broken” in opener, ‘A Chain Of Chain’, demonstrates the power of their combined baritones, like modern day monks bringing us the word, or warning us of some impending horror.
With a grey brutalist structure looming behind the stage, adding to the air of theatre, it makes sense that the visual is as important as the aural here: ‘Hope Six…’ was more than just an album from the very beginning, created in public sessions as part of an art installation at Somerset House.
Older favourites – ‘Down By The Water’, ‘Is This Desire?’ and ‘To Bring You My Love’ – are markedly more like, well ‘songs’, than those from Hope Six. Harvey’s voice is still as full of poetry, emotion and yearning – and her idiosyncratic warble on ‘TBYML’ is still as otherworldly and powerful – as it was two decades ago. 2007’s When Under Ether really demonstrates her shift in story-telling: lines like “The woman beside me/Is holding my hand/I point at the ceiling/She smiles, so kind” are given to us in a smaller, more personal way, compared with the direct, forthright delivery of now. It’s reassuring to see her in her guise of days gone by.
Polly Jean’s spell is broken only once, when she falters on the first note of a track. She coughs and giggles into the mic, apologising, having a brief laugh with her band before striking up again. It’s a soft, personal moment among an otherwise powerful, military-precision show of strength. It reminds us that, like all good leaders, PJ Harvey is human underneath all that armour. And long may she reign.
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Words: Emma Finamore